BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: 5-1

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Here we go…

05. Tourist History by Two Door Cinema Club

That’s right – it’s time to gush even more about the most addictive record of 2010.  I’ve already discussed the ultra-strong songs, the youthful exuberance and the driving rhythms.  What else could be said?  If you’re not on board yet, I’d suggest trying the superb singles “What You Know” and “Something Good Can Work.”  Now consider that this is their debut album and that the band is very young.  Many “mature” artists can’t make something so polished and cohesive.

For some, this pick will seem silly and void of real value.  In a way that argument is partially true.  The songs deal in very basic romantic emotion and the band doesn’t really break new ground.  Yet after making countless versions of my Best Albums list, I couldn’t put them anywhere else.  Sometimes music is just good and simply enjoyableTourist History is that for me and endlessly on repeat.

04. This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem

It’s hard to follow up on a record that contained the greatest song of the 2000s.  James Murphy doesn’t even bother really – This is Happening stands tall without anything like “All My Friends.”  But it’s better that way.  Instead of trying to recapture that brilliance, he keeps moving forward, introducing more sounds, better lyrics, better singing and powerful personal discussion across a full album.

What makes this record so amazing is how each song packs a punch.  Opener “Dance Yrself Clean” hits you upside the head when the drums kick in.  “Drunk Girls” is a sustained song-long rush.  “One Touch” has a wonderful groove.  “All I Want” is the saddest tune ever done by LCD and you feel for Murphy.  “I Can Change” feels naked and exposed.  “Pow Pow” is brilliant fun.  They all have something, and that’s why I can’t get away from this record.  It is personal to LCD Soundsystem, yet you can honestly sympathize and that connection is genuinely moving.

03. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

Different versions of this list have The Suburbs all over the place, but I can’t really justify the record outside the top three.  Quite simply this is one of the most complete albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing.  No song, no sound feels out of place in the grand scheme of things.  Win Butler and company have built on the sonic foundations of Neon Bible and done something stunning.  Much like Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, the beauty offered here is something to marvel at.

Of course the 2,000 pound gorilla in the room still stands: this is no Funeral.  It lacks the true hard-hitters like “Rebellion (Lies)” or the “Neighborhood” tracks.  But that doesn’t matter.  It isn’t Funeral and that’s the point.  Arcade Fire have moved in a new direction and gained a great deal of artistic merit in doing so.  This is a triumphant release by a rising super-band and deserves the praise it has been dealt.  The Suburbs is a fantastic record and you need to hear it.

02. Forgiveness Rock Record by Broken Social Scene

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Grandiose has lost so much value as a phrase in music.  Everybody talks about how big a sound is, often citing arena acts that reach the biggest audiences.  But here, the sheer effort and enthusiasm of such a large group pushes Forgiveness Rock Record into an overwhelming place.  The sounds are layered from everywhere and the song styles are varied.  The huge build in “Chase Scene” is insane.  “Art House Director” is upbeat and exciting.  The productions values are phenomenal and the music is clear.

But you know what?  It doesn’t matter how big and exciting this is – the music itself is phenomenal.  I love the strong drums, the exciting guitars, the boisterous strings and the blaring horns.  It all blends to a tremendous point that few records can achieve: the songs are excellent standalone and the album is even better as a whole.  Yes, it’s just as good as You Forgot it People.  And that’s saying something.

01. High Violet by The National

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Here we are with the best record of 2010.  Just everything about it works.  There is a real confidence in the band, exploring emotional realms and building a real sense of atmosphere.  Dark drums, tight bass and simmering guitars make every song consistent.  And that really matters here – there is no song worth skipping because they all bring so much to the table.  The album supports itself, making even the super high points (“Conversation 16” and “Lemonworld”) add to a much bigger whole.

So what makes this the clear top record of 2010?  For me it’s the details.  Matt Berninger is at his haunting best with vocals.  The lyrics are somber yet complex and draw you further into each piece.  The strings in many songs are just enough to push the whole thing over the edge.

Yes, High Violet is that good.  It is memorable, powerful and will convert you to following The National.  Feel the reward and explore the brilliance.

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BEST SONGS OF 2010: 5-1

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5. “Conversation 16” by The National

This was the song that finally got me.  I somehow didn’t “get it” for a while with The National.  I was like so many other lost souls.  I thought they were boring, or dull, or that every song sounded the same.  I appreciated the loud songs or the good piano songs, but I didn’t really understand.  And then the creepy chill of “Conversation 16” knocked me right over.  The warbling bass line and the pinpoint drums finally made sense.

But what I ultimately realized were the details.  The organic singing, the reeds playing, the haunting “ooo” behind the chorus, the emotive lyrics, the lightly plucked background guitar.  It took me long enough, but everything worked and that made every other National song work.  If you are how I was, I beg you to try this song.  It might change everything.

4. “Suburban War” by Arcade Fire

“Suburban War” is the most complete standalone song from The Suburbs and that’s why it lands so high.  Unlike the rest of the album, the mood and feeling of this song are retained in any setting, not just in its proper place.  The obvious draw is the plucked guitar that covers the majority of the song, but everything else leaves you holding on for more.

I personally love the little drum fill at the very start of the song, the sweeping strings, and the excellent harmonies.  But the song becomes so much more when it finally takes off, with thunderous drumming, desperate wails and a massive volume increase.  This gives the track real character, and leaves it as a very holistic composition.  This is the ultimate turning point on The Suburbs and the true highlight on a brilliant record.

3. “What You Know” by Two Door Cinema Club

I just can’t avoid this song or this band.  It defies simple dance rock by adding strong emotional depth.  While it starts with a “typical” guitar and drum figure, that high ringing guitar that enters at the 14-second mark changes everything.  Instead of just pushing with a grungy guitar and bass, the ringing guitar cries out with real strength and power.  It seems overkill, but it really makes the song.

But is one guitar enough to make it the third best track of the year?  It does when piled above an infectious beat, a great breakdown halfway through and enthusiastic singing.  Really, Tourist History does very little wrong, and this is the ultimate high point, with the whole track just popping out beyond almost all others this year.  Dance to it, feel sad about it, enjoy the whole thing.  It’s amazing.

 

2. “Desire Lines” by Deerhunter

I’m not the world’s biggest Deerhunter fan.  I don’t really think Halcyon Digest is the pure masterpiece that so many others claim.  I don’t know that I could seriously sit through one of their albums more than once.  They’ve awfully experimental and dense – which isn’t a bad thing, it just doesn’t fit my tastes all the time.  Of course, they’ve managed to make two insanely huge exceptions in singles.  The first was “Nothing Ever Happened,” a purely brilliant song and fifth best of the last decade.  The second is this song.

I can’t really pinpoint why I love the song so much, but it’s crucial to note what a late entry this track was.  I hadn’t listened to any of the new Deerhunter record until Christmas, and somehow didn’t get all the way to this track.  Oh boy was I missing out.  There are such haunting and genuinely bothersome voices.  There is a real sense of escape, but you can’t tell if that’s a good thing.  The chorus is centered around the phrasing “Walking free, come with me / Far away, every day,” which would seem nice enough, but a very subtle “whoa-oh” follows after every three syllables.  It’s mildly liberating and terrifying.

But the true release is in the final half of the song, a lengthy guitar solo and instrumental breakdown, almost fullfilling the initial promise of freedom.  The production is stellar, the pacing perfect, and it just sticks with you the whole time.  I cannot say enough about this song, but it does fall short of the overall top status.

1. “Don’t Do It” by Sharon Van Etten

Here we are at the best song of the year.  I was introduced to Sharon Van Etten through the All Songs Considered NPR Podcast (an excellent way to find new music) and completely blown away by her voice.  Van Etten sounds confident, but not conceited, and emotional without being whiny.  She strikes one of the most perfect vocal balances in current music, and her warmth just draws you in.

From here, the song sweeps you away.  Sparse composition creates a strong backbone for the singing to work around.  It’s all about mood in the instrumentals, and they develop a very strong one.  Light and effective drumming keeps a consistent pace while gradually adding cymbals as the song builds.

The subject matter also pushes the song beyond a simple vocal reflection.  “Don’t Do It” is effectively about suicide, with the singer pleading with the afflicted to not take their own life.  It is sobering, yet ultimately optimistic treatment of such a difficult topic.  Particularly poignant is one of the first lines, “Want to take you outside / Want to show you the sky to remind you why you shouldn’t.”  The song drops you right into the situation, and begs you to interact.

“Don’t Do It” isn’t a pure pop piece like 2008’s “A-Punk”, it’s not baroque pop like 2009’s “While You Wait for the Others” and doesn’t have the tone of the decade-best “All My Friends,” but it stands tall with these songs.  The reflective song and powerful voice push “Don’t Do It” into such elite company, and deep into your mind for months and maybe years to come.  Give it a listen, and enjoy the best fruit of such a good year.

BEST SONGS OF 2010: 40-21

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This is Part 1 of a 3-part retrospective on songs in the year 2010.  This list is semi-limited to only three songs per artist, but the songs needn’t be singles.  Instead, it’s just the 40 songs that most struck me as being the best of the year.  Enjoy! 

40. “Derezzed” by Daft Punk

As a whole, the Tron: Legacy soundtrack was pretty miserable.  It sounded just like a soundtrack and nothing like Daft Punk.  This was the most notable exception, and it was amazing.  I want more of this.

39. “Turns Me On” by Big Boi

Big Boi managed to remind everybody that Outkast did, in fact, have two very worthy members.  His solo record was full of A+ moments, but this was the highlight for me.  Slightly seductive music and pitch perfect delivery from Big Boi.  He’s probably the best pure rapper right now.

38. “And the World Laughs With You” by Flying Lotus (feat. Thom Yorke)

This was the first song I’d heard from Flying Lotus, and it convinced me to get the whole record.  It’s all impressive, but this is the best of the set.  The song is haunting and alive despite its electronic nature.  Curiously Yorke isn’t the highlight – he gets distorted to wonderful effect.

37. “Solitude is Bliss” by Tame Impala

Psychedelic rock with a modern twist.  The production quality is great, but the hazy feel and singing are excellent.  Add to it some excellent guitars, and this is like a “clean” version of a Hendrix/John Lennon-hybrid.  It’s pretty trippy and lots of fun.

36. “Palm Road” by Wolf Parade

Wolf Parade have managed to disappoint with every release since their debut record.  However, it’s only because the band hasn’t hit the same heights as its first.  Taken separately, “Palm Road” is a tight rock song with strong vocals and tight rhythm.

35. “Spanish Sahara” by Foals

I believe this track has the best build of any song this side of “Fake Plastic Trees.”  The emotion is raw and powerful, and when you finally hit the loud part it’s not hard to feel shock.  Sometimes the song feels too long, but it’s a real keeper.

34. “Even Heroes Have to Die” by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

The distinctive Ted Leo voice is there, and so is the infectiousness.  The song really pops out, reflecting the great energy and creativity of its creators.  Occasional breakdowns make this song exceptionally entertaining and enjoyable.

33. “Hell” by Streetlight Manifesto

It’s a cover (originally by the Squirrel Nut Zippers) but it is amazing.  Streetlight Manifesto have some of the best horn players in music (not just ska) and they’re in a great state here.  This has a breakneck pace and the spelling of “Damnation” is spectacular.

32. “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Arcade Fire

Blondie is an obvious inspiration (“Heart of Glass” much?) but that’s alright.  The song is still enjoyable, even in this version.  The strong lyrical continuity throughout The Suburbs makes this track even more valuable.  Strong emotions push this into “must listen” category.

31. “Romance is Boring” by Los Campisanos

It’s all about strong melody here.  Particularly, the main refrain is spectacular, absolutely popping out.  Tight guitars, lovely singing and great lyrics.  It also helps that the slight introductory section (same part as that between chorus and verse) is a strangely arresting guitar line.

30. “Green Eyes” by Wavves

I had managed to avoid the hype and subsequent blowout from the first Wavves release.  But here, I heard the song independently, and it was excellent indie.  The guitars are great, the vocals are raw and the melody fantastic.

29. “Vesuvius” by Sufjan Stevens

The newest Sufjan record is very difficult, and I personally haven’t found that much to like from it.  However, the clear highlight is the very moving “Vesuvius,” a song that finds Sufjan analyzing himself and the world around him.

28. “Bambi” by Tokyo Police Club

Crazy electronics and a very unified rhythm result in a standout track that is miles above the rest of the record.  “Bambi” isn’t entirely unique, but it is different enough from the rest of Tokyo Police Club’s output that the effect is great.

27. “Crash Years” by The New Pornographers

“Crash Years” is done in the typical New Pornographers style – strong vocals, strong harmonies, and big sound.  This makes it unspectacular in their catalog, but quickly qualifies it as one of the best of 2010. It’s sugary sweet and pure fun.

26. “We Used to Wait” by Arcade Fire

The Suburbs is difficult to pick singular songs out of because everything blends together well to make a strong whole record.  “We Used to Wait” is one of the singular pieces thanks to a mesmerizing piano line and impassioned vocals.

25. “Power” by Kanye West

Kanye was kind of a big deal in 2010, and this was the first single for all of it.  “Power” shows the rapper near the height of his current abilities, building insane layers of booming rhythm and tight spoken delivery to create a sound of desperation behind his egotism.  It’s human, but that’s good.

24. “Colours” by Grouplove

The main draw of this song is the development.  It starts as a quiet reflection, but quickly grows louder, eventually ending in a freakout before one of the final refrains.  It’s all about the strained singer and exceptional guitars.

23. “Pow Pow” by LCD Soundsystem

Do you remember “Losing My Edge?”  This is like a new version, but directed at all of society, rather than just hipsters.  It all feels like Talking Heads but with the classical LCD touches.  What keeps you coming back is the dry humor.  “You’re no Bruce Valance” indeed.

22. “Boyfriend” by Best Coast

Lovely lo-fi pop and emotional vocals.  These concepts don’t necessarily make a song great, but the delivery is spot-on.  “Boyfriend” is great when turned loud and played driving down the highway.  Keep it on all your traveling playlists.

21. “To Old Friends and New” by Titus Andronicus

This is punk rock slowed down, distilled, and with a piano attached.  It’s a good thing, and the addition of a female singer makes the raw back-and-forth even more effective.  This may not be the easiest way into The Monitor but it’s certainly the best one.

Review: The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

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Rating: 9.8/10

You’ve already heard this album.  It leaked last week, it came out yesterday, and it was streamed on NPR for some time between those two dates.  If you wanted it, you certainly own it.  If you dislike Arcade Fire, you’re wrong but this won’t change your mind.  I think this is a real contender for Album of the Year; it has great depth and has rewarded multiple listens.

But you know all of this.  So why should I even bother with a review?  Besides a clear plea for internet credibility and attention (every music blog/site will have some review of this), I’m actually out to compare and understand this album.  I have two directions to follow: one in terms of the whole Arcade Fire canon, and the other in comparison to the greatest album in music at the time of this release.  That second part will be in another post.

As per the score, a brief review: at first it’s good but not overly great.  Then you listen again and it’s better.  You repeat this about 12 times and it’s spectacular.  I don’t know what trajectory it has now, but the whole this is just so cohesive.  The music and themes hit big like U2, but keep that work ethic that the band is known for.  The hype doesn’t really match the album – this is crafted and lovingly executed.  People are too loud in screaming about the album.  Let The Suburbs work on its terms and you’ve got a winner.

Okay, now for the fun stuff:

The Suburbs as an Arcade Fire Album

Funeral is an epic, emotional masterpiece of rock.  It is full of amazing anthems, great string parts, and upbeat songs.  While the whole thing is amazing, there are very distinct highlights: “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” are clearly the best songs.  These have been the best Arcade Fire songs since their release.  They surge with power, getting you to either move (with the latter) or feel shivers down your spine (with the former).

Neon Bible is a darker album, with a more thunderous bass and moodier atmospherics.  It is far more refined, and not nearly as optimistic.  This album is weaker than its predecessor, but underrated.  There are lulls along the way, but that leaves the top tracks on this release to stand much taller.  “Intervention” is amazing, and “No Cars Go” is electric.

The Suburbs does not have these highlights.  No one songs rises above the others in any significant way.  The opener (“The Suburbs”) is quite similar to others on the release – mid-tempo with meandering guitars.  Even the hard-rocker (“Month of May”) isn’t very noteworthy.  Perhaps the only song to be a semi-standout is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” but that’s mainly due to the differing musical style.  I can’t see any of these songs being Song of the Year contenders.

But I propose that this is far better than Neon Bible.  Why?  Read on.

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Catching Up on Things

Wow I’ve got a lot to get up to date. First, I’ve got a concert review (Flaming Lips and Black Keys). Then I need to get some record reviews in (Arcade Fire, Karkwa, Janelle Monae, Tokyo Police Club, Wolf Parade). And maybe I can also get some other posts thrown in?

It’s an exciting music summer for me, and I hope I can share some of this with you guys in the next few days. More downtime should hopefully be in my future.

Canada Day 2010 – An Appreciation of Modern Canadian Music

Happy Canada Day to the folks up north!  In honor of this holiday, let’s take a look at some of my favorite Canadian music.

Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” by Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire is simply a brilliant group, and they’ve managed to only build their great reputation in recent years.  While we all look forward to Suburbs (their upcoming album), it’s always great to take a look back at some of their past work.  While all the “Neighborhood” songs are great, #3 stands out as both lout and stark.  It has a great beat but still manages to sound foreign after all these years.  It’s a great release from our northern neighbors, a wonderful treat from their musical culture.

Shine a Light” by Wolf Parade

Wolf Parade has become a more acquired taste with each new album, leaving Apologies to the Queen Mary as both their best and most accessible work.  But here is perhaps the most melodic and enjoyable song from the band.  Yes, there are these connections to Modest Mouse, but this is a real Canadian indie classic.  A driving rhythm, catchy guitars and synth work all add up to an awesome song.

Chase Scene” by Broken Social Scene

The newest BSS album (this year’s Forgiveness Rock Record) strikes a strange balance.  It is at once a great collection of stand-alone songs and a phenomenal suite of music that works together.  Using that first characteristic, “Chase Scene” stands as one of the most epic pieces of music in the past few years.  The whole thing just grows, adding guitars, strings, drums, voices, bigger-and-deeper drums, powerful striking strings, and then those horns.  Oh man the horns.  When the whole thing reaches a simultaneous end and climax that high note of the brass is just amazing.  I hope these awesome Canadians keep making music for a long time.

Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young

And then something a bit different, for those who may have forgotten that Canada produced great music before the time of indie rock.  Neil Young has forged an epic reputation for great guitar work, ranging from blues-rock to folk.  “Cinnamon Girl” finds Young in a harder rock setting, working his vocals and guitar along the brilliant groove.  Beyond just being a fun track to hear, this song makes a regular appearance for me in various road trip playlists.

Moral of the story here?  Go listen to more Canadian music!  Well, until the 4th of July, anyway.  A USA-based post to come on Sunday.

BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 10-4

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Here is the second-to-last part of my decade list.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.  It’s really tough to put some of these in order.  So that pretty much means that albums 10-1 are all crazy good, and I think you should hear them at least once.

Come back tomorrow for the finale…

10. Picaresque by The Decemberists (2005)

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I am a total sucker for the theatrics of The Decemberists.  But Picaresque rises above the rest of their catalogue by offering wondrous detail, both verbal and musical.  The album never becomes unwieldy and is very charming.  Each track is full of lyrical wit and real emotion.  “Eli, The Barrow Boy” is painfully sad.  “The Engine Driver” pulls you into the loss and rejection of the titular character.  Yes, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is huge and crazy, but it’s also a powerful piece.  Nerdy?  Yes.  Brilliant?  Undeniably.

9. The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me by Brand New (2006)

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Having now heard their follow-up album (Daisy), it’s a bit disappointing to see Brand New stop their evolution here.  Brand New were an average snotty, crappy punk band that followed in the mold of Blink 182.  Forgettable radio fodder.  But then something magical happened: they decided to become artists.  The process was took two albums (leaving Deja Entendu as a nice straightforward punk album), but the result was fantastic.

Here there were textured sounds.  You could actually understand the band’s dynamics.  The songs had a hint of artsy production.  They even managed to pull some Modest Mouse stuff.  It was all brilliant, leaving a refreshing feeling and some faith in punk rock.  Even the simplest of songs were packed with mature themes and strong musicianship.  These guys need not be associated with that Jude Law song any longer.  This is a real statement.

8. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens (2005)

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Ambitious hardly begins to describe this album.  Contained within the now-defunct 50 States project are two records.  Seemingly, it would be pretty difficult to contain the spirit of a state in one disk.  But after doing so well with Michigan, Stevens completely eclipsed his own effort in the sprawling and stunning Illinois.

22 songs, and over an hour of playtime sound pretty daunting.  But when you realize that a few of them are mini-songs designed for album flow, the remaining stuff sounds even more overwhelming.  But Stevens has an amazing gift at hook development.  It starts from the first notes: you want to hear where those pianos will go in “Concerning the UFO.”  Soon you’re left wondering where “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” will go in its two parts.  Eventually you realize that you’re halfway through and still can’t wait to see what will come next.  Insanely classy and certainly brilliant, this is a wonderful epic.

7. Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes (2008)

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Okay I lied.  Back when I called this the best album of 2008, I also said something bold about this becoming the greatest album of the decade.  As you can plainly see, 7 is not the same as 1.  Why the change?  Well, I’ve had more time to consider the album and those I’ve placed ahead of it.

Fleet Foxes is a splendid album, still full of the gorgeous things that make me smile in its style of music.  Stunning singers are still the highlight, and it carries the whole album.  But has this recorded lessened in any way?  Almost.  Too much familiarity lessens some of the impact.  Thus, to keep this ageless wonder ageless, it’s best to not over-saturate.  However, when used appropriately, Fleet Foxes is still amongst the best of the decade.

6. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear (2009)

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My love for Grizzly Bear started as I listened to them before they opened a Radiohead show.  After that show, it was clear that I needed to pay attention to Grizzly Bear’s next album.  Then came the leak.  I was worried about hearing it, but was so painfully curious.  I heard, and was pleased but understood the audio quality as a barrier to excellence.

Oh boy was that quite the barrier.  Veckatimest is superb, offering gorgeous little details.  And really, this is all about the beautiful details.  It’s clear that this album was painstakingly crafted by four excellent musicians.  Every song has moments of pure brilliance and the whole album shimmers with production quality.  After such a great run in only a brief existence, I really look forward to the next release from Grizzly Bear.  It’s obvious they are great quality control experts.  But while I wait, I will have Veckatimest to keep me happy.

5. Funeral by Arcade Fire (2004)

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This was a game-changer for me.  I hadn’t quite realized the broad potential of indie rock, but I was getting there.  And then in the summer of 2007, I finally got my hands on this disk.  Late to the party, sure, but very interested.  I was blown away from the first moment.  The near-sobs of Win Butler’s vocals were stunning.  The fearless sincerity was unnerving.

People sometimes insult or marginalize Arcade Fire for being so loud.  I think that’s a mistake.  Loudness and bold statements do not necessarily lessen music.  When used as a tool for communication, loudness is a powerful resource for Arcade Fire.  They fill out the room like U2, but have the grip of Neutral Milk Hotel.  But for me, none of that matters without “Rebellion (Lies).”  That song is the keystone of Funeral.  In my mind, it all builds to resolve in “Rebellion.”  That progression and development is amazing and makes Funeral so good.

4. In Rainbows by Radiohead (2007)

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It feels strange ranking In Rainbows ahead of Kid A.  But for me, it’s so easy.  While I have to be ready to hear Kid A, this album can come on at any point and make me happy.  That’s one big difference: the joy involved.  Yes, songs like “Nude” and “All I Need” tug at the heartstrings.  But it’s the feeling of the whole album.  Freedom and warmth abound.

Forget about the pricing thing.  It was cool at first, but does not make this the best Radiohead album this decade.  Instead, the songs make this the best album of Radiohead’s decade.  Each one has personality, power.  They’re all made by a full band, offering insight into their powerful musicianship.  But really, it’s personal affection that gets me to place In Rainbows so high.  I love this album for all that it offers and it is in constant rotation in my music.  These 10 songs are phenomenal.